Queering the null hypothesis

When psychologists conduct research studies, they engage in what’s called “hypothesis testing”  – they articulate an informed prediction regarding the outcome of the study, and then they test that prediction. Most researchers play it safe – the informed prediction they usually come up with is called the “null hypothesis,” which means that no relationship exists between two or more phenomena, or that no treatment effect exists. For example, a scientist might be studying whether or not there’s a relationship between two or more phenomena – let’s say, between socioeconomic status and school achievement. If the study reveals a connection between these two factors, we can “reject the null hypothesis” – and, for a researcher, this usually results in uncorking a bottle of champagne and jumping for joy. Editors of research journals tend to be much more interested in studies that reject a null hypothesis – largely because studies that dispute the status quo are far more interesting than those that don’t.

But I bet you didn’t read this blog post today because “Research Methods in Psychology” was your most favorite class in the world. (If it was, my apologies.) But it’s relevant to my discussion today – and so, whether you wanted it or not, you got a mini-crash course in research methodology. And that’s because, when it comes to LGBTQ research, in many cases it’s desirable NOT to reject the null hypothesis.

Consider this: In 1957, psychologist Evelyn Hooker published a study titled, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” which compared the mental health and psychological well-being between gay men and heterosexual men. At that time, the conventional wisdom was that gay men, by definition, were psychologically damaged. And guess what? Hooker’s study failed to reject the null hypothesis – she found no difference in the psychological adjustment of gay men and straight men, and this finding was pivotal in the removal of the homosexuality diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this case, failing to reject the null hypothesis was grounds for uncorking the champagne bottle.

Fast-forward to 2012. Today, much of the research seems to focus on relationships in the LGBTQ community – and the desirable outcome, at least when it comes to supporting public policy efforts like same-sex marriage, is the null hypothesis. No differences exist between heterosexual relationships and same sex relationships.

No differences?

We know, in fact, that quite a few differences exist between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Some of those differences put same-sex couples in a more positive light – for example, in a comparison of 40 same-sex and 40 opposite-sex couples, renowned researcher and couples therapist John Gottman found that gays and lesbians engage in different arguing behaviors than their heterosexual counterparts. During arguments, gays and lesbians are nicer, less belligerent,  less domineering and less fearful than heterosexual couples, and gays and lesbians use humor more often when arguing. In their conclusion, the authors noted that “heterosexual relationships may have a great deal to learn from homosexual relationships.”

But that’s not the full story. Several studies, including one conducted by Larry Kurdek (who has since died), indicate that same-sex couples, particularly gay men, have a higher breakup rate than their heterosexual counterparts – perhaps as a result of ongoing homophobia, highlighted by the lack of legal recognition and protections for same-sex relationships. Same-sex couples are also more likely than heterosexual couples to engage in consensual non-monogamous relationships, including open relationships, polyamory and polyfidelity, casual sex, “friends with benefits,” and so on.

But some of the most disturbing differences involve intimate partner violence. A recent study, published in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, compared patterns of intimate partner violence among four groups:  heterosexual men and women, bisexual men and women, gay men and lesbians, and men and women who have had sex with members of the
same gender but are not identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. What they found was this:

  • Compared to heterosexual women, lesbians, and women who have sex with women, bisexual women were significant more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence.
  • In 95% of intimate partner violence annual incidents reported by bisexual women, the perpetrator was a male intimate partner, indicating that the violence occurred outside a same-sex relationship.
  • Gay men had elevated risk of experiencing intimate partner violence compared with heterosexual and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay or bisexual.
  • Almost all (97%) of the annual incidents of intimate partner violence incidents occurring to male victims involved a male intimate partner.
  • Binge drinking and a history of psychological distress predicted intimate partner violence, but these factors did not explain disparities between bisexual and heterosexual women or between gay and heterosexual men.

Most research, prior to this study, failed to reject the null hypothesis, if you will. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), “experts believe that domestic violence occurs in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community with the same amount of frequency and severity as in the heterosexual community.” But this new study, led by Nadine G. Goldberg and Ilan H. Meyer of the Williams Institute at UCLA, suggest otherwise. For some reason, bisexual women and gay men are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence than any other group. A clear rejection of the null hypothesis, you’d conclude.

But what if we looked at the data from a different angle? Most research studies tend to focus on who the victims are – not the perpetrators. In Goldberg and Meyer’s research, the violence that gay men experienced was perpetrated by men. Among bisexual women, men were the perpetrators of violence. In countless studies investigating intimate partner violence in heterosexual couples, the violence was perpetrated overwhelmingly by – you guessed it – men.

If the focus is placed on perpetrators rather than on victims, then we’re looking at a clear failure to reject the null hypothesis. So why are LGBTQ relationships framed as “the problem” when the common denominator is the sex of the perpetrator?

Maybe heterosexual and LGBTQ relationships aren’t so different after all.


Filed under bisexuality, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, relationships, same-sex marriage, sexism, Uncategorized, violence

2 responses to “Queering the null hypothesis

  1. Kim

    I think that deep gender differences built in from thousands of generations of evolution also explain some of the other differences you mention earlier in the piece. For example, males of the species were more likely to pass on their genetic material to surviving offspring if they spread that genetic material around to as many partners as possible, while females were more likely to produce surviving offspring if they found a partner who was strong, a “good provider”, etc., and stuck with him, giving her the ability to nurture and care for the offspring. I think all of that somewhat “hard-wired” men to be less driven toward monogamy, and women to be more drawn to it. Increase in testosterone levels definitely creates aggressive tendencies, so I don’t think this finding is surprising, but again, “wow”, what a difference it makes to take the same data and look at it from a slightly different angle.

    • Thanks, Kim, for your comment! Just for the record, there’s been a LOT of debate in the academic community regarding the accuracy of evolutionary mating/relationship theories. Some researchers have found more differences among women as a group and among men as a group, compared to differences between women and men. There are also researchers who question whether evolutionary patterns resulted in gender differences in relationships, or whether our gender stereotypes of differences in relationships have been a source of bias in evolutionary theories. As for which perspective is correct, it’s hard for me to say – given that both camps are equally (and powerfully) impassioned in their points of view.

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